While global warming may be making it easier to sail the Northwest Passage and in Arctic regions generally, the same global warming might, paradoxically, make it more difficult to sail in Antarctic regions.
Antarctic sea ice
In an apparent polar paradox, global warming has led to more ice in the sea around Antarctica and could help insulate the southern hemisphere from atmospheric warming.
A Dutch study says that unlike in the Arctic region, sea ice around Antarctica has expanded at a significant rate since 1985.
Scientists have known for several years that meltwater from ice sheets can form a cold, fresh layer on the ocean surface that protects sea ice from the warmer waters below. But they were not sure whether that aided the observed expansion of Antarctic sea ice as the new study suggests.
Published online in Nature Geoscience, the article suggests cool freshwater from melt beneath the Antarctic ice shelves has insulated offshore sea ice from the warming ocean beneath.
Richard Bintanja of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute and colleagues say the Antarctic sea ice expands during southern hemisphere autumn and winter in response to this fresh, cool surface layer that freezes easily.
'Against the background of global climate warming, the expansion of Antarctic sea ice is an exceptional feature, which seems to be associated with decreasing sea surface temperatures in the Southern Ocean,' they write.
'We predict that this mechanism will be a sizable contributor to the factors that regionally and seasonally offset greenhouse warming and the associated sea ice retreat.'
They say the expanding sea ice may constitute a 'feedback' that has the potential to oppose southern hemisphere atmospheric warming and amplify increases in global sea level.
Changes in sea ice can significantly modulate climate change because of its high reflective and strong insulating nature, the paper says.
There are other plausible explanations for Antarctic sea-ice expansion, however.
'The mechanism could be completely true, but this study does not demonstrate that increased melting has made a significant contribution to the increase in sea-ice cover,' says Paul Holland, an ocean modeller at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, UK, who last year co-authored a study showing that the sea-ice expansion is caused in large part by regional wind patterns.
Winds change the extent of sea ice, both by physically moving the ice and by warming or cooling the sea surface. Using satellite data for sea-ice motion in 1992–2010, Holland and his colleague Ron Kwok, a climate researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, showed that in certain regions of Antarctica, such as the Weddell Sea, sea-ice changes are almost entirely due to the physical force of the winds. In other areas, such as the King Håkon Sea, they result from the combined effects of wind force and temperature.
Bintanja says that wind effects are important locally but that meltwater influences sea-ice expansion regionally. Holland counters that ice melt is not uniform around the Antarctic coastline — as assumed by the authors of the latest study — but is concentrated in certain locations. Holland says that both wind patterns and meltwater may be expanding the sea-ice near the South Pole, but that remains to be seen.
More at http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ngeo1767.html